As policymakers manage the daily reality of Kansas’s prison crisis, let’s understand the core issue and its implications. Kansas has a growing prison population but lags other states on criminal justice reforms that could curb that growth, ease managing prisons and reduce budget strain from prisons. 

Kansas state prisons have about 10,000 inmates. Per Kansas Sentencing Commission numbers, that population grew 16% in the last decade. However, per Census estimates, the Kansas population only grew 2% in that time, so we are growing our prison population much faster than our state is growing.

As the Prison Policy Initiative reports, Kansas is at about the national average for prisoners per 100,000 people. Like the nation, Kansas imprisons more people per 100,000 than any western country. Kansas also has higher imprisonment rates than authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba, Russia and China.

The Kansas Sentencing Commission estimates that our prison population will grow to over 12,000 by 2028, growing faster than the state’s population and possibly even any growth in crime rates, if recent numbers hold. Plainly, if nothing changes, the prison crisis will worsen.

Kansas is one of just 20 states where prison populations grew in the last decade. Nationally, Bureau of Justice statistics show that violent crime and property crime decreased in that time, though in surveys most Americans incorrectly perceive an increase. Of course, how those rates changed varies by location.

Let’s dissect Kansas statistics from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. From 2009 to 2014, the number of violent and property crimes committed in Kansas was generally decreasing, including murder, rape, robbery, assault, arson and theft. However, during that five-year period of decreasing crime, Kansas’s prison population grew by about 12%. 

In 2014, the number of violent and property crimes started to increase in Kansas, which overlapped with ongoing growth in our prison population. So, regardless of whether crime increased or decreased in Kansas, prisoner numbers grew. That suggests crime rates and prisoner numbers may not be as cause and effect as many think. 

The logic of the incarceration trap is temptingly simple: “tough on crime” means harsh punishments. That same mentality boomed Kansas’s prison population in the 1990s when national trends were building more prisons, enacting new felonies and increasing sentences. 

But, reality is often more complex. Absolutely, many criminals should be in prison. They are not the issue here. The issue is whether our policies grow our prison population no matter what happens with real world crime, and whether the cost benefits public safety.

One advantage to Kansas lagging other states on criminal justice reform is that we can learn from them. Conservative and liberal states alike have adopted numerous reform measures, some even while experiencing increasing crime rates. As policymakers examine this issue, they should study what other states have done on things like alternative sentencing, incentive plans, equitable policing and sentencing, re-entry, parole and juvenile justice. 

If Kansas is not smart about prisons, then we are doubling down on crisis. We are also choosing either more money to build prisons, or continued expensive relationships with sketchy private prison contractors like CoreCivic. Setting Kansas prisons on a different course will take study, experimentation and political spine, both from policymakers and the public that shoulders the future cost of doing nothing differently.

 

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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